Nadia Comaneci did not want to miss the moment, the one she hopes can reinvigorate her country.
Comaneci, the great Romanian gymnast who is now based in Oklahoma, landed in Paris on Saturday, two hours before the women’s final of the French Open, where her countrywoman Simona Halep was hoping to finally break through for her first Grand Slam title.
The top-ranked Halep made the trip worthwhile, beating Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, in front of a boisterous crowd with dozens of bright red, yellow and blue Romanian flags.
“I wouldn’t miss this moment,” Comaneci said. “I’m so happy I could be with the entire stadium, all the Romanians, and everyone who was here supporting her.”
When Comaneci became the first gymnast to earn a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympic Games, it helped propel Romania, not previously a force in the sport, to become a gymnastics dynasty for generations. The country has won 72 Olympic medals in gymnastics, nearly twice its haul of 38 in its second-most successful sport, rowing.
Comaneci, 56, said she hoped Halep would have a similar influence.
“Every 40, 50 years, there comes somebody who breaks the rules, and they make history,” Comaneci said. “I think it’s great. It’s amazing for Romania, for sport in Romania, because you always have a young generation who look up to someone and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’
“I think she’s going to give a huge boost to sports in general,” she added. “The country needs that; this generation needs that. You will see a lot of little ones with rackets.”
(Comaneci quickly added, of course, that children should first try gymnastics, which she believes is “the best sport as a base for anything you want to do.”)
Toca, 36, was born four years after Virginia Ruzici won the women’s French Open title in 1978, which was the country’s last Grand Slam singles triumph before Saturday. Her title capped what had been a golden generation of Romanian talents, led by the two-time Grand Slam champion Ilie Nastase.
“In Romania, the achievement is enormous,” Ruzici said of Halep’s win.
Romanian tennis has endured several years of less-positive news, especially regarding Nastase. Last year, he was thrown out of a Fed Cup competition in which he was serving as captain for Romania.
Two days before this year’s French Open began, Nastase was arrested twice in a six-hour span, first on charges of drunken driving, and then on charges of running a red light on a scooter.
Ion Tiriac, who alongside Nastase helped lead Romania to Davis Cup glory in the 1970’s, has used his business acumen to support Halep’s career. He said that his generation of players would be heartened to finally have a successor.
“Romanian players deserve that,” Tiriac said. “We have, for good or for bad, a history in our country. From time to time jumps a talent like Simona.”
Romania has five other women ranked in the top 70, but the country’s contingent in men’s tennis is considerably more meager, with only one man ranked inside the top 400.
Tiriac said he hoped Romanian tennis authorities would take advantage of the momentum from Halep’s victory to build better infrastructure for youth sports.
“For young kids, we don’t have that,” he said.
Romania hosts only one tour-level tournament, a WTA clay-court event in Bucharest the week after Wimbledon. But the tournament cannot be staged in the city’s grandest tennis stadium, Arenele BNR, which was condemned a few years ago for being at too great a risk of collapse.
The news of Halep’s victory also had to vie for attention in Romania with the current political turmoil in the country, which grew louder on the day of the women’s final.
On Saturday, the Social Democratic Party, which holds a parliamentary majority, bussed protesters into Bucharest to oppose anti-corruption investigations that the party contends have overreached. Set against that was Halep’s victory, which was set to be celebrated on Monday at the National Arena Stadium in Bucharest. Tiriac suggested her triumph would speak loudest.
“She’s the biggest personality in Romania,” he maintained. “Not only of athletes, but as a human being.”